Beaconization, which is the process of equipping pedestrians and bicycles with transponder beacons that can automatically be detected by sensor-equipped cars, has been granted the official seal of approval by the U.S.
With support from 13 Republicans, the mammoth bill passed with a vote of 228 to206. Six Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, voted against the measure. Biden could sign it within days.
Biden stated that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would “modernize our infrastructure and our roads, bridges, and broadband, a range transforming the climate crisis into a chance.”
The Act allocates $4.7 billion to expand highways (yes, more roads during a climate crisis), $1.79 trillion for improving transit and $605 million to repair and replace bridges.
It is easy to overlook a part of the Act that formalizes the acceptance and use of “vehicle-to-everything” (V2X), technology that promises increased safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
Experts warn that there are serious downsides to this technology being deployed.
The mammoth bill includes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it section on “research on connected vehicle technology.”
This states that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, along with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office and the Federal Highway Administration, will “expand vehicle-to-pedestrian research efforts focused on incorporating bicyclists and other vulnerable road users into the safe deployment of connected vehicle systems.”
According to the bill, Congress will receive a report within two years that includes the findings of the research and an analysis of how vulnerable road users can be accommodated in existing spectrum allocations for connected vehicles systems.
Everything can be done with vehicles
Millions upon millions of signs, poles, and posts have been fitted with low-power transponders to allow them to be detected by sensor-equipped cars today and tomorrow. Chipping road furniture and junctions is an important part of a new sector called “intelligent transportation systems” (ITS).
The deployment of infrastructure-to-vehicle beacons has been consequence-free so far–the posts and poles have no say in the matter–but ITS isn’t quite so intelligent when pesky humans are added to the mix.
Since many years, the auto and telecommunications sectors have worked with bicycle manufacturers to develop “bicycle–to-vehicle (B2V), sensors.”
The World Bicycle Industry Association supports such beaconization. Manuel Marsilio, general manager of the World Bicycle Industry Association, told attendees at 2018 Geneva Motor Show’s Future Networked Car Symposium that “bicycles will certainly have to communicate with others vehicles.”
Bicycle makers working with the connected car industry to find which V2X sensor technology is most effective is seen as a good collaboration. The best part is that cyclists will be safer on the roads. The future is bright for tech companies and wealthy cyclists. Connected cars will know where the bicycles are on the highway beacons. This will prevent any accidents. Vision Zero became a reality not through hard infrastructure or behavior change, but through technology.
Peter Norton, a transport historian, believes that the most likely future scenario is highly dystopian. He fears that only beacon-equipped vehicles will be detected. He fears that only the beacon-equipped vehicles will be spotted.
Norton, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society, says that it is difficult to imagine how automated driving systems could reliably identify bicyclists without beacons.
Research has shown that the task of detecting cyclists is one that autonomous vehicle designers have had to overcome. Bicyclists may be at greater risk if beacons are used to send drivers the message that they are watching out for them, but in reality, the car is not doing this very well.
What about chips with that?
Bicyclists who must ride with Radio Frequency Identification beacons (or similar) should consider the next step for pedestrians, which would warn those against B2V technologies.
ITS companies claim that most people already have such devices because they use Bluetooth to signal their presence. But not everyone has a smartphone. What happens if your smartphone battery dies? Or are there sync issues?
Perhaps you forgot to switch off airplane mode. Smash: You’re dead. Critics of the technology claim that it was your fault for thinking that you were safe from being hit with connected cars and trucks.
Because it is the only way that AVs can work in dense urban areas, the auto industry is keen to get pedestrians and cyclists to send real-time location data. Lidar, 360-degree cameras and other “smart vision” technologies are not able to warn of someone running from behind parked cars.
What about children who are too young to use smartphones? What if a transponder was placed in a piece of clothing? What if the beaconized baseball cap was not worn by the child?
The beacon would need to always be present on the person. Logically, this means that it would have to be embedded within the body. Are we ready to chip all human beings?
Marsilio, World Bicycle Industry Association’s Director of Communications, told Future Networked Car that digital connectivity “will significantly improve road safety as well as traffic efficiency by helping cyclists (and other road users) to make the right decisions and adapt to traffic situations.”
He stated that “the bicycle industry believes that the proper deployment and use of harmonized connected service is key to this goal and that interoperability must be a priority.” It is unacceptable for road users to die because of incompatible communication technology.
Marsilio said: “Boosting user adoption requires an appropriate regulatory climate.”
What regulatory environment? Are there any penalties or prison sentences for people who choose to ride–or even walk–beacon-free. It is worth noting that jaywalking, which is a crime in many U.S. States, was invented in 1920 by the motor industry to allow motorists to travel more quickly on the streets and roads. The promise of speed has been the cornerstone of car sales.
In practice, road safety has meant “get out the way of cars”, and historically it led to pedestrians retreating from the streets.
Tome Software, a U.S. company that specializes in bicycle-to-vehicle technology, was founded in 2014 and is based out of Detroit, Michigan. It has over 20 companies involved in bicycle-to-vehicle technology, including top-end brands like Trek and Specialized, as well as companies that sell budget bikes to big-box retailers.
Tome also works with Give Me Green. This system involves installing bicyclist recognition technology at stoplights, which turns them green for cyclists.
Tome is also working on technologies to equip bicycles with beacons.
Norton warns that if the technology makes cycling safer for people who have it but more dangerous for others who don’t have it, will that be grounds for policy to require all cyclists to have the equipment to detect them? If this is true, we will have issues with accessing cycling for those on low incomes or deterring cycling in a society that needs more, not less, for many reasons, including sustainability, public health, and environmental protection.
Norton said, “We aren’t protecting these unequipped cyclists by equipping them. And we are making their situation worse as road officials and drivers expect cyclists equipped.”
It is not clear that beaconization technology for pedestrians and cyclists will ever become mainstream. The research that President Biden authorized to study infrastructure may show that pedestrians and cyclists should not be forced to use transponders or other similar technology to allow for a future of driverless cars.